Auto Detailing - September 2006

Detail Inc., Part II Prepare—Learn to Do
the Job and Run the Business

By Prentice St. Clair

This is the second in a multi-part series dedicated to the “business” of detailing. In last month’s column, we listed the several issues that would be appropriate points for discussion. As you could tell from the content of that column, I am a strong believer that part of running the business correctly is obtaining — at the outset — the proper training on how to do the work correctly. This month, we will discuss, in broad terms, ways to go about preparing yourself for those endeavors, both operationally and administratively.

To be successful at virtually any profession, one must obtain background information in two main areas: (1) the skills necessary to perform the duties that are typical within the profession and (2) the information necessary to succeed in the profession.

Although the profession of detailing does not require a great deal of knowledge to perform, there is still much information that a professional detailer should know, including:

  • Knowledge of the equipment and chemicals
  • Knowledge of the vehicle surfaces
  • Knowledge of the procedures required to recondition and protect the vehicle surfaces

These types of issues can be categorized as “operational knowledge.” That is, this information is necessary for the detailer to have in order to perform detailing. Additionally, there is a second category of information necessary for the professional detailer to be successful in the industry, which I will call “administrative knowledge.” This includes such activities as marketing, scheduling, bookkeeping, management, and supply, among other things.

The best detailing technician in the world may be terrible at running the business. Likewise, the best business manager in the world may be terrible at detailing cars. Nonetheless, most of us must be proficient at both activities. Some of this proficiency comes with experience, but for the fastest results, there is no substitute for training and education.


To learn the art and science of detailing, many technicians rely on the expertise of those around them — other technicians who have been “doing it longer.” Unfortunately, the approach of passing information from one technician to another leads to watered-down and imprecise methods of detailing. The best approach to learning detailing is to attend a hands-on training school where the new technician will be exposed to professional equipment, chemicals, and procedures.

If the travel and expense of a training school is simply out of the question, there are some excellent videotape training packages available in the industry. These will give you the background information and visual demonstrations necessary for you to get a basic grasp of the elements of detailing. Then you can practice with this information to gain hands-on experience.

Some suppliers provide free training with the purchase of their products. The advantage of this training is that you get information specific to the products that you will be using. The disadvantage is that the training sometimes becomes simply a sales pitch for you to buy more products from the company. Your local detailing supply distributor may also offer detailing seminars, with the same advantages and disadvantages.

My experience has been that, as with most purchases, “you get what you pay for.” If you want a truly exceptional training experience that includes hands-on practice and lots of background information, you will have to pay several hundred or a few thousand dollars. Free or very low-priced training experiences often leave the trainee longing for more.


Knowing how to perform the operations of a profession and running a successful operation are actually two very different tasks. Fortunately, many aspects of running a business are common to all businesses. There is a huge number of “how-to” books on success and conquering basic business principles.

Another great source of business administration knowledge is your local community college or other educational institutions that cater to learning adults. Your local municipality may also provide free courses on business success.

Tap into your social and business network. Take a “successful” businessperson to lunch and pick his or her brain for ideas. Talk to others within your industry — most “successful” detailers are willing to share their ideas. Consult with experts in specific areas in which you need help. For example, if you are having trouble attracting customers, talk with a marketing specialist.

One way to jump-start your business (or give it a kick in the pants if you’re already operating) is to work with a business consultant familiar with the industry. I recommend finding someone who has real-world experience in the detailing industry as well as a good grasp of the information necessary to run a successful business. Business consultants can be expensive. Many require advanced payment for several months of service. Find someone that will allow you to “pay as you go” and one that guarantees results.


If you are reading this article, you are reading one of the several trade magazines available in our industry. These publications are great sources for bite-sized chunks of information that can help you with both the daily grind and planning for the future.

Consider also becoming involved in the trade organizations that cater to our industry, including the International Carwash Association. There are also a number of regional trade organizations. These organizations have annual conventions that typically offer two things that can be helpful to you: an exposition of industry products and suppliers, and educational lectures. The exposition or trade show allows you to peruse new products that can be helpful in the performance of your operation. The educational lectures can help you with both the operation and the management of your business. Conventions also bring together like-minded individuals, giving you the opportunity to network with other detailing professionals.

Although I don’t recommend relying on a distributor’s local free seminar as the only source of basic detailing knowledge, it can be a good source of supplemental information. If you pick up just one good technique or idea that saves you time on every detail from now to eternity, the day was well spent. Additionally, these seminars will bring in other local detailers with whom you may choose to network. Just because you are providing the same service as someone else, this does not preclude cooperating with that person so that you can both increase your success.

The Internet offers an added resource. Online detailing forums abound. It is interesting to “peak” in on these occasionally. Realize, however, that anyone can contribute to an online forum, which means that it is difficult to know whether or not the information you are reading is valid. Thus, read detailing forums carefully. If the information that you are reading does not stand well on your foundation of detailing training, ignore it. Also look for the source of the information — is it coming from a backwoods detailer or a respected industry expert?


Your success in operating a professional detail center is based in great part on the knowledge that you have. Take the time and invest some money on the foundation of your knowledge of both the basics of detailing as well as the essentials of successful business management. You will see your investment create returns such as a more efficient, effective, and profitable operation.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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